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I left Render early and hitched all morning. Five rides. Proselytizers and moralizers every one, each with a warning about the evils of hitchhiking, the evils of teenage girls out in the world alone, the evils of cigarette smoking and lipstick wearing. Each of them with a great big warning against going up to the work camp at the new Cornstalk Dam.
My last ride was with an egg salad-smelling woman who drove her Cutlass Ciera slow around the switchback curves. She wanted to know what I wanted to do up there anyhow.
“I’ve got to see somebody,” I said, concentrating on a scab on my wrist. I picked at the brown bump to see if it was dry enough to come off without bleeding too much.
“Honey, ain’t nobody up there right now, I don’t think,” the woman said. “I saw on TV where the governor said something about that accident. You heard about that poor boy, didn’t you?”
I yanked the scab off and flicked it onto the floorboard. A trail of blood dribbled down toward my elbow.
“You got a boyfriend working up there?”
“No,” I said, and dabbed the blood onto my jean skirt.
Out the window the Cornstalk Regional Dam service road curved off to the right. The woman pulled to the edge of the blacktop.
“They’re forever thinking they can control this place,” she said, pointing to the hillside of poplars and locusts. “Dam that river. Chop these mountains up into usable pieces.”
I unpeeled my sweaty legs from the vinyl seat.
“How you getting back to town?” the woman asked.
I shrugged and tugged on the handle.
“Honey, are you sure—”
I slammed the car door and waved bye, flashing my fingernails painted half-orange, half-pink, chewed all down to the quick.
The Cutlass took off, leaving nothing but the whoosh of wind in the trees and a woodpecker tapping. I turned toward the service road and followed it up into the poplars, their leaves shivering in the breeze, covered with dust and curled into crinkled palms from the deep drought. The trunks of the ones along the edge of the road were splattered with shreds of paper and red paint.
In his first few letters, my brother, Blake, had written to me about how the protesters came here and stayed. They camped in the ditches with their signs about “Keep the Wild in Wild and Wonderful West Virginia” and “Dam You, No Government Control Over Our Rivers.” Blake said that when the boys came down from the work camp and into town on the weekends the protesters had crept out of the trees and hurled words and even stones sometimes. The workers threw [End Page 63] back, especially on their way home from the bars. Empty Pabst bottles and pool hall darts, a dollar for every commie you hit. Pretty soon the protesters ran out of steam and slunk off. One Friday night the boys headed down to Diesel Dave’s and when they came up the last hill, the woods at the head of the road were quiet, spooky. They rolled down the windows and hollered at those goddamn pussy-whipped sons of communist bitches, but no sound came back except the peep of early tree frogs.
The woods were quiet now too and as I walked up over the hill the trees fell away and the Cornstalk Regional Dam rose in front of me. Amongst a jumble of raw earth and bent trees, the concrete walls spread smooth and clean. Half a dozen bulldozers and excavators were parked, frozen mid-dig at the base of the dam. And though the gray walls were as dry as a hot July road, they had a movement to them, a swooping glide where the white wave would someday topple over the cement crest. Even in all that dust-dry drought I swore I could hear the water thundering.
The road split, winding one way down to the dam and the other way off towards a huddle of tin trailers scattered about in a clearing of white pines. The trailers...